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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Religion may be an embarrassment, but the secularisation thesis is wrong

Am going through stuff I had written a while ago and I thought I'd post this bit from John Frow's 'Is Elvis A God? Cult, Culture, Questions of Method’, International Journal of Cultural Studies vol. 1, no. 2, 1998, pp. 207-8 (click to enlarge):
This passage greatly inspired the decision to pursue the research I've been pursuing for the past four years. Here are the works referenced, if you're interested:


Berger, Peter (1967) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Doubleday.
Graham, Gordon (1992) ‘Religion, Secularization and Modernity’, Philosophy 67: 183-97.
Martin David (1969) The Religious and the Secular: Studies in Secularization. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What if the 'scientific revolution' ≠ a clean break from the West's theological, philosophical, and occult legacies?

Recently a friend posted on Facebook this link to Sam Harris' blog: Everything and Nothing, An Interview with Lawrence M. Krauss. I'm not familiar with Krauss' work as such, but I understand that he is a renowned theoretical physicist. So I'm not really in any position to comment on the specifics of his arguments. In any event, limiting myself to what I can infer from the interview, I'm happy to follow the general thrust of what he is saying: that is, current scientific knowledge suggests that the universe or cosmos is best described as a continuous process of becoming. Assuming that this is a reasonable interpretation of his arguments, it is consonant with the continental philosophical ideas I'm interested in as well as Buddhist ideals that orientate my life-practice. However, I was somewhat disheartened to read this bit in the interview:
Empirical discoveries continue to tell us that the Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not, and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not theology or philosophy. (Indeed, religion and philosophy have added nothing to our understanding of these ideas in millennia.) I spend a great deal of time in the book detailing precisely how physics has changed our notions of “nothing,” for example. 
Why harbour such sentiments? It is called theoretical physics. So what is meant by 'empirical discoveries'? Is it really the case that what theoretical physicists are discovering today have no relation whatsoever to religion and philosophy and are not influenced by them? In saying that 'something' and 'nothing' are physical CONCEPTS one is already working with conceptuality. As far as I'm aware, to varying degrees philosophy has always concerned itself with, amongst other things, the ways in which we conceptualise, the extent and limits of conceptuality. So can it really be said that what Krauss is dealing with are 'properly the domain of science', that 'religion and philosophy have added nothing to our understanding of these ideas in millennia (interestingly, we could ask Krauss what he means by 'added nothing')?


OK, maybe there's some relationship between science and philosophy. But what about religion? Didn't the scientific revolution signal a break with the West's religious past? When I read the above, I was reminded of the following course that is being offered by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, 'Changing Images of Knowledge in Modernity'. In particular, I was reminded of this bit from the course outline:
This course will involve a critical examination of the dominant images of science in European thought: spanning the Enlightenment idea that science marks the decisive emergence of mankind from epochs of cultural darkness, to elegiac images of science as abstract, instrumental, and nihilistic.  After the opening lecture introduces these images and their history, we will spend two lectures challenging the notion that the so-called “Scientific Revolution” of the 17th century was a single, simple break with the West’s theological, philosophical, and occult legacies, and explore the idea that the birth of modern science was a complex process in which older styles of reasoning were transformed (for instance in the mechanical and astronomical sciences), and new styles (like the experimental style of reasoning) gradually emerged. 
I only have knowledge of the general contours of the body of scholarship which the course engages with. In any event, there's no space to discuss this in detail here, though I may try to revisit these ideas in the future. For now, I just want to point out that it is difficult to cleave the different realms of human knowledge (philosophy, religion, science) apart once and for all. I mean, sure, they involve different things and it is important to be clear about that. But it is something else altogether to deny their shared history.

What I'm pointing to more or less echoes current debates about the secular/religion divide. Current scholarship, especially the influential work of Talal Asad, suggests that 'secularism' is not self-evident, that rather than signal a decisive break from 'religion', 'secularism' is dependent upon a particular conception of 'religion'. From this optic, the problems associated with religious fundamentalism we witness today are not remnants from the past but are rather produced by the ways in which 'secularism' is deployed (see summary of Asad's work here). What this suggests is that rather than take the self-satisfied view that religion is utter BS and has no relevance in the contemporary world or adopt a dogmatic secularist position, the more responsible response in the face of injustice (performed in the names of both 'religion' and 'secularism') is to rethink the supposed antinomies between religion/secularism--to be more mindful of the relationships and potential links between such domains of knowledge like philosophy, religion, and science.

So in response to Krauss' views, I would ask: Why this insistence on establishing a definitive hierarchy with science at the top? To what ends? For what purpose? In whose interest? Or to express it in a Buddhist way of thinking: what is the intention behind such views?